Posted by: Sara Jean | May 24, 2010

My First Ever Book Review: Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

I have something shameful to admit: I’m a bad, bad reader these days. I partly blame my new iPod, and more specifically the tangled web of coolness and crap that is the world of podcasts. But mostly I blame school. I’m training to become an editor, and for the first time in nearly ten years I’ve had homework to do on a regular basis. Reading actual books–like something other than the Chicago Manual of Style–has become a rare treat for me lately.

It is with a slightly apologetic tone, then, that I offer you my first book review, which is of a book about, of all things, grammar. (I swear it’s interesting.)

More specifically, it’s about the art of diagramming sentences.


I learned to diagram sentences in the seventh grade. (Where are you now, Ms. Cooper?) I don’t know if it helped me understand grammar any better, but the memory of parsing sentences into their component parts made reading Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, by Kitty Burns Florey, a pleasure.

The book uses the art of sentence diagramming to examine the way our society has viewed the English language over the course of history. As the language has changed and evolved, Florey argues, we have devised more complex–and sometimes convoluted–ways to understand it. Sentence diagramming, in addition to being a means of torturing millions of schoolchildren in the first half of the twentieth century, is simply one way grammarians and linguists have tried to make sense out of a language that often doesn’t make sense.

The book starts with a stroll down memory lane for Florey, who learned to diagram sentences in Catholic school from the “Sister Bernadette” of the title. This section is really lovely, written in a humorous and playful tone that also manages to be quite informative. Florey is able to explain the logistics of sentence diagramming without putting her audience to sleep.

Sister Bernadette also delves into the history of the sentence diagram, which developed out of the Victorian urge to categorize everything, and–in my favorite section–diagrams some literary selections, such as sentences from Proust’s Time Recaptured and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (easier said than done, I might add). It ends with a discussion of the fate of sentence diagramming in our current education system. Teaching diagramming is hardly mandatory in public schools these days, but some lucky students are still learning how to do it. In short, it refuses to die.

My only criticism of the book is that it’s about diagramming sentences; therefore, if you’re not into language studies, and you’d rather not learn the individual parts of speech contained in Ernest Hemingway’s sentences, for instance, it might not be for you. If, however, you like to point out misplaced modifiers on restaurant menus to your friends for fun, you might enjoy it. The subject matter really shouldn’t scare you either way, because Florey is an excellent writer with a great sense of humor, and she makes even the history of sentence diagramming pretty interesting. (Besides, she’s a copyeditor, so she must be cool.)


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